Shocker: Sbisa, 18, may start year with Flyers; club shows support for former Phantom now in Iraq

  Many 18-year-old forwards have cracked NHL lineups, but 18-year-old defensemen?

  It doesn't happen too often.

 Defensemen have a lot more responsibility, and it's rare to see such a young defender reach the NHL.

That's what makes Luca Sbisa so intriguing.

Sbisa, 18, the Flyers' No. 1 pick in the June draft, is making a stunningly strong bid to be on the Flyers' roster when they open the season Saturday by playing the New York Rangers at the Wachovia Center.

   “To be honest, I never thought I’d be here at the end,” the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Sbisa said after the team practiced today at Army’s rink in

West Point, N.Y.

“I’ve worked hard and I’m happy to be here…but I know they can still send me back to juniors.”

     Flyers coach John Stevens raved about Sbisa’s size, strength and composure again today. Stevens said he and management will have “some long discussions” in the next few days before deciding if Sbisa starts the season with the club.

    “And we’re still waiting on the healthy of a couple guys, too, so all those things will be considered,” he said, referring to defensemen Randy Jones (hip) and Ryan Parent (shoulder), who are recovering from injuries but skated at today's practice. “But he’s obviously made quite an impression by the fact he’s still here….I think this experience, whether he stays or not, will be invaluable for him as we move along.”

    The Flyers today announced that defenseman Danny Syvret and right wing Andreas Nodl have been assigned to the Phantoms, their AHL affiliate. That leaves the Flyers with eight defensemen; they figure to keep seven or eight. (Lasse Kukkoken and Sbisa are probably Nos. 7 and 8.)

    “I made it this far, so why not keep believing?” Sbisa said. “I will keep working hard and we’ll see what they say.”

    The Flyers could keep Sbisa on their roster for as many as nine games and then send him to juniors. If he’s on the roster for 10 games or more, he must be on it for the entire season. (Because of his young age, he cannot be sent to the AHL Phantoms.)

    “We just have to make sure we’re doing the right thing for him and the right thing for us,” Stevens said, “and, again, our health is a factor.”

     Sbisa, who signed a three-year entry-level contract for $875,000 per season last week, said he tries not to think about whether he will make the team and concentrates on what he CAN control _ playing hockey.

     “If they send me back, I will go with a lot of confidence back to juniors,” he said. “I know it’s pretty rare to be here at my age as a defender…I’m pretty surprised, but if you work hard, that’s I think what happens.”

    Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn said Sbisa plays with poise beyond his years.

    “I remember when I just got drafted and was in my first camp, it’s no easy thing at all. I’m sure lots of guys struggle a little, but he’s been going right at it with a full head of steam.” he said. “For a defenseman, he’s got no fear out there. He’s got a great skill set and he’s not afraid to make mistakes or make plays and that’s one of the most important things.”

   “He fits right in,” Stevens said. “He has a lot of quiet confidence and is very respectful. It takes you two or three years sometimes to try to get players to be good pros and he seems like he has the demeanor of a good pro already.”

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Spectrum finale.

   For the last time in their history, the Flyers will play at the Wachovia Spectrum when they meet the Phantoms Tuesday night at 7:30. Before the game, many of the players from the Flyers’ two Stanley Cup championship teams (1973-74 and 1974-75) will be honored, including Bill Barber, Tom Bladon, Bob Clarke, Gary Dornhoefer, Andre Dupont, Rick MacLeish, Simon Nolet, Bernie Parent, Don Saleski, Dave Schultz, Ed Van Impe, Jimmy Watson, Ted Harris, Bob Kelly, Bill Clement, Terry Crisp, Orest Kindrachuk, Bob Taylor, Reggie Leach and Larry Goodenough.

    Approximately 1,000 tickets remain for Tuesday night, and 500 tickets are left for Saturday’s regular-season opener.

   Antero Niittymaki, playing in his first game since he underwent hip surgery, is expected to be in goal for the Phantoms Tuesday. Look for Niittymaki to play at least two periods.

 * * * * * * * * *

Nice gesture

    Cheers to Flyers trainder Jim McCrossin; he is purchasing dog tags with Ben Stafford's name on it so they can be worn by a handful of Flyers who played with Stafford  when he was on the AHL Phantoms _ and helped them win the Calder Cup in 2005. Stafford, 29, who is now in the Marines, was deployed to Iraq on Sunday. The dog tags are the Flyers' way of keeping Stafford in their thoughts.

  Contact staff writer Sam Carchidi at